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Last Updated: Friday, 30 July, 2004, 10:40 GMT 11:40 UK
The summer book title fight
By Duncan Walker
BBC News Online Magazine

Every summer book publishers battle it out for a lucrative slice of the holiday reading market. Here's how they make you pick their top titles.

With the holiday season in full swing, there's every chance you'll be buying a book or two to enjoy during a well-earned escape from the daily routine.

The fact that so many people are looking for something to read is not one to escape publishers and bookshops, who traditionally respond with well-timed offers and their best new paperbacks.

But in a multi-million pound industry, which churns out about 100,000 new titles each year, competition for customer attention is tougher than ever and sales techniques increasingly aggressive and sophisticated.

Could it be that your choice of summer book has less to do with what you would like to be reading and more to do with what the industry wants to see in your lap?

Obvious blockbusters

The big players are loathe to reveal just how much they make from the holiday market, but it's no secret that the summer is second only to Christmas in terms of sales.

It's very important to be in the first 20ft of the bookshop
Joanna Prior, Penguin

"It's a really important time of the year, because you have lots of people buying more books than they otherwise would because they have more time," says Joanna Prior, publishing and marketing director at Penguin books.

It may be the first time that many customers have visited a bookshop since Christmas, says Ms Prior. They may not be confident book buyers, and will want to find something they like quickly.

But it is no longer good enough to simply pile up hundreds of obvious blockbusters at the front of the store.

"The interesting thing is that people are moving away from traditional holiday reads, like crime and chick-lit, and are looking at things like biographies and histories," says Jo Lees, books editor at Amazon.co.uk.

Eager publishers

Walk into any of the big stores and one of the key ways of appealing to the diverse interests of the book-buying public quickly becomes apparent: the "3 for 2" offer.

Tables packed with titles pushed by eager publishers, and carefully selected by the stores, are often the first thing that customers see and browse.

The cover of Morality for Beautiful Girls, by Alexander McCall Smith
Vibrant colours are very much in vogue this year

"It's very important to be in the first 20ft of the bookshop," says Penguin's Joanna Prior. She says the promotional offers - and others like half-price deals - are increasingly driving what people read.

Waterstones, one of the pioneers of the technique, says it gives customers the chance to try something new. "People, because you have it in a 3 for 2, are going to try that book because they're not paying for it," says a spokeswoman.

Publishers cannot buy their way onto the tables, but will normally be asked to contribute cash towards overall marketing costs .

At the moment the tables are being used to promote not only the chick-lit summer titles, but also Penguin classics and other big books like Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code and its predecessors.

Tony Saint, author of Refusal Shoes, a comic novel exposing the darker side of the immigration service, says being selected for the 3 for 2 tables is "great".

"When you go into Waterstones and see how many other books there are you think 'my God' and the thought of how you're going to get noticed becomes a big deal."

'Strong colours'

Survival on the promotional tables is never going to last more than a few weeks, so even the biggest titles have to be ready to fight for customers' attentions when relegated to the acres of shelves.

What seems to be coming through on jackets at the moment are bright, strong colours with an eye-catching design
John Hamilton, designer
Reviews and word-of-mouth recommendations both play their part, but it's the dust jacket which makes the big difference - even if readers like to think they don't judge a book by its cover.

"What seems to be coming through on jackets at the moment are bright, strong colours with an eye-catching design," says John Hamilton, art director for Penguin Books.

Many people will have seen the vibrant African-themed designs of books by Alexander McCall Smith, author of the Number One Lady's Detective Agency. The series began years ago, but is now enjoying huge success following a re-design.

Previous summers have seen 1930s style imagery in fashion, and before that it was photography. Just as the market for clothes and music is driven by one or two influential changes, so too is the book industry.

Book shop
Book shoppers are faced with acres of shelves

When Mr Hamilton designed the cover for the Louis de Bernieres novel Captain Corelli's Mandolin, it was criticised by industry executives for its unusual blue and white design.

He told them it represented the blue sky and white buildings of Greece, the book went on to sell more than one million copies and a new trend in design emerged.

Designers have a matter of seconds to persuade a customer to pick up their book, and with the growing importance of supermarket sales, they also have to tempt people away from the food aisles.

High-brow

Another designer says he is more interested in who the book is being sold to than what it's about.

Chick-lit covers will play on interests like friendship, while beach reads will perhaps feature sand and sea and more high-brow books play on the aspirations of likely readers.

The importance of design, he says, means "some of the best selling books aren't necessarily those that are the best".

To many the arguments over whether people are reading the right books is second to the fact that more people are buying books, and that has to be a good thing.

And as far as the industry is concerned, what you are reading today is no longer that important anyway.

After all, the executives have already decided what you'll be reading at Christmas and beyond.


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